Allston Expansion Engages with Arts

In the past two years, most mention of Allston seem to be followed by the phrase “Science Complex,” but media attention directed towards the University’s plan for expanding its science programming into the neighborhood neglects another element of its expansion. At one point, the future of Allston also included details for incorporating the University’s art museums. Though recently the Science Complex has eclipsed this part of the project, last week the role that arts will play in Allston has once again come to the forefront.

At Harvard, where institutional memory is short, but university planning is often long-term, it is easy to forget (or to never have known) that plans for development in Allston once included much more than simply the Science Complex. The University’s master plan comprised an initiative to move the Fogg Museum to Allston and to create a modern art museum in the neighborhood. A location was even selected for the project.

But in 2007, the emphasis on the arts element of the Allston plan was replaced with a focus on the Science Complex. That year, the University finally got the go-ahead from the Boston Redevelopment Association to break ground on the $1 billion state-of-the-art science research facility that it hoped would become a mecca for stem cell research. The project would herald a new concentration—Human Regenerative and Developmental Biology—and provide a space to house the department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. But just four months ago, University President Drew G. Faust announced an indefinite halt on construction of the Science Complex due to financial constraints.

The original delay on the construction of arts facilities in Allston has had ramifications even until the beginning of this year. In January, Helen Molesworth, the head of the modern and contemporary art department at Harvard, left the University for the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston.

“I had been hired to help Harvard build a new museum across the river,” Molesworth told the Globe. But one day she said she thought, “The ICA is that building. I should probably call.”

Despite the reality of Harvard’s fiscal situation hindering the progress of plans in Allston, during this past week the potential for expanding the arts in the neighborhood has resurfaced. The Silk Road Project, a nonprofit arts and educational organization created by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, announced that it will move its headquarters to a Harvard property in Allston this coming July.

The Silk Road Project remains an entity separate from the University. But Ma says that the move from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I., where its headquarters originally were, to Allston is motivated by a desire to be more involved with Harvard since its successful completion of a five-year residency at the college.

“By actually being more on campus we can have a deeper engagement with and understanding of what’s actually happening at the University,” he says, adding that he hopes the Silk Road Project will be involved with creating new course offerings at the University, in addition to hosting symposia on subjects ranging from the state of the arts to community involvement.

University officials confirmed that the Silk Road will likely be involved with Harvard on a curricular level.

“The move will enliven our imagination as we continue to develop ‘Silk Road Courses,’ of which we already have created three in the FAS,” writes the college’s divisional dean of the arts and humanities, Diana Sorensen, in an e-mail. “Joining forces with and deriving inspiration from Mr. Ma’s organization, we hope to continue creating more innovative courses that focus on the notions of material exchange, culture and understanding across cultural divides.”

Indeed, what Ma describes as “a lab for interdisciplinary and creative work,” will now find its home in Allston, bringing to the vanguard questions of the place of arts in the neighborhood.

“The original planning for Allston has always been much more multi-dimensional than just science,” Faust says.

Lori E. Gross, the Associate Provost of Arts and Culture, echoes these sentiments.

“Arts and culture has always been part of the long term plan in Allston,” she says.

Yet the administration’s language on the subject remains vague. “In due course Allston will be a wonderful space for artistic experimentation and collaboration,” Sorensen writes. “It will offer not only our students and faculty unique cultural activities, but it will also share them with the Allston residents in innovative, fruitful ways, facilitating cultural citizenship and entrepreneurship.”

Gross agrees, stressing that plans must be considered “very strategically” due to financial constraints, but that one of the purposes of the Task Force on the Arts is to ensure that the arts be at the table in conversations about the future of the University.

­—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at segroopm@fas.harvard.edu.

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